COLLEGE PARK—Too much was happening at once.
It seemed that years worth of life-altering news — some good, some tragic — was being compressed into a single, unforgettable day.
It was this past July, and Mark Sobel, a 51-year-old New Jersey orthopedic surgeon and former walk-on Maryland football player, was suffering through the unimaginably sad death of his 17-year-old son. Nearing the end of his life, Mark Sobel Jr. lay in Children's Hospital of Philadelphia with myocarditis, an infection of the heart.
The elder Sobel had a decision to make: Should he donate his son's organs? In the haze of his grief came an unmistakably clear thought — Frank Romano.
Romano, 59, is a retired restaurant owner and chef from Connecticut who played on the offensive line for the Terps before Sobel arrived at the school. He was on dialysis after being diagnosed in 2007 with renal failure. He had become sick enough that he had passed out several times.
Romano and Sobel had become acquainted at Maryland football alumni events and had bonded in the way passionate alumni sometimes forge friendships over a shared cause.
"Frank was an immediate friend the night we met," Sobel said.
When the transplant team asked about organs, "Frank Romano popped into my head," Sobel said.
But the team had a warning: Romano had to be located within hours for the kidney transplant to succeed. And Sobel didn't have his friend's cell phone number on hand.
So began a frantic search to locate Romano that included telephone calls to, among others, current football coach Randy Edsall; former coach Ralph Friedgen and his wife, Gloria; and Paul Vellano, the father of current Maryland defensive lineman Joe Vellano.
Somebody involved in the search reached Ralph Friedgen, who knew that Paul Vellano was friends with Romano and could probably locate him. "The joke was, 'You call one Italian, you get 'em all,'" Romano said.
Romano was in Connecticut when he got the word from Paul Vellano to contact Sobel. When he learned of the grave condition of Sobel's son, Romano said, he was stunned that the family was reaching out to him. "I thought, 'How could they think of me now?'"
By the next morning, Romano had a new kidney. He said he has been feeling much better since — and was plenty well enough to join Sobel at this season's Maryland-Virginia football game. Both men wore Maryland jackets, and Romano wore his letterman's ring.
Although it sometimes happens, it's not typical in transplant cases for the donor's family and the recipient to be in contact when they are not related.
"And the miracle of it is that Frank was available, he was a match, he had kept himself in position where he could receive the kidney," Sobel said.
Said Edsall: "To have teammates or alumni taking care of each other, that's just an amazing story."
Sobel said his late son had been considering attending Maryland.
"It's a beautiful feeling that Frank has Mark's kidney," he said.